Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Family Support Services

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone. I call Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis An Leas-Chathaoirleach.

ParentStop in Donegal, an organisation that has operated since 2007 but evolved from a meeting in 2005, is an organic community-led charity. It is a tremendous organisation. In the most recent year, it has supported over 400 families across Donegal. Most of those families are self-referred by word-of-mouth. It is a safe space for parents who are struggling and parents who are separated but still have responsibilities to be parents to their children. A range of professionals, including judges, teachers, social workers, counsellors and healthcare professionals, refer people to this service. I know the Minister is passionate about this kind of community-led approach. That is why I appeal to her today. I appreciate that Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has corresponded with my colleague, Councillor Albert Doherty, and it has made it clear that it has tried to increase the supports within limited resources. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, tried its best to support ParentStop, but what is missing here is a multi-agency or a cross-departmental approach. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is the framework to do this.

The board of ParentStop has put together a really powerful statement with testimonies from families who have used the service. It is hugely respected across the spectrum in Donegal. It is passionate, but unfortunately it has had to put its team of workers on protective notice every year because of insecure funding from different sources. It is never multi-annual or guaranteed for a defined period. ParentStop is always vulnerable and always under threat. These are really passionate and committed people, but they cannot be financially reckless. This is a charity and it has responsibilities.

I understand the Minister has made a commitment but I urge her to meet with the board of ParentStop. She will be hugely impressed by them as they are her kind of people in terms of being community-led, empowering communities, professional and diligent. I also call for a cross-departmental approach.In fairness, the Ministers for Justice and Equality, Education and Skills, and Health, together with senior officials in those Departments, could work with the Minister's officials to share the financial burden. A proposal has been submitted by the board of ParentStop, which refers to a pilot project in Donegal, based on the learning of ParentStop, which will hopefully result in the continuation of the work of this organisation on a three-year, multi-agency, cross-departmental basis. This has been submitted to the Minister for Education and Skills. This is a tremendous initiative, which has been in place for almost 13 years now. Some 400 families have been supported this year and I have heard nothing but good reports back. It is a very private, safe and healing place for families to be good parents and to look after their children. I appeal to the Minister to meet the board of ParentStop and try to work towards a solution on a cross-departmental basis to try and get this organisation back on the road again.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. It is wonderful to be back in the beautiful Seanad Chamber.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is welcome from the Lower House.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I congratulate all the great craftsmen and craftswomen as it is absolutely stunning.

I thank the Senator, my friend and former colleague, for the opportunity to discuss the planned closure of ParentStop in Donegal. ParentStop is one of many voluntary and community organisations across the country, funded by Tusla and other State agencies, which provide valuable supports to parents and children. Over the past 15 years, as the Senator outlined, ParentStop has supported families in Donegal in a complex range of situations and across the continuum of care.

Services offered by the organisation include one-to-one sessions for families with complex needs, intensive supports for children and brief intervention supports for children and families. ParentStop has assisted families dealing with range of issues, including separation, addiction, financial worries, online safety, obesity, mental health concerns, bullying, stress, and peer pressure. The contribution of ParentStop to supporting parents and their children in Donegal over the past 15 years has been immense. Thousands of families have benefitted from the services provided by the organisation and the growth in the number of families availing of its services over the past number of years reflects how much its services are valued by families themselves and people working closely with children and families in Donegal.

As one of ParentStop's core funders, Tusla has been aware of the organisation's financial difficulties, particularly those arising from the decision of the northwest regional drug and alcohol task force to withdraw funding in 2018. Under Part 8 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, Tusla funds a range of organisations that provide services to vulnerable children and families, including those providing parenting supports. Tusla must assign its resources to the areas which it perceives to be in greatest need, ensuring the best outcomes for children and families. The agency seeks to fund those services in the most beneficial, effective, efficient, proportionate and sustainable manner to improve the outcomes for vulnerable children and their families. Recognising the value of the supports provided by ParentStop to parents and families in Donegal, Tusla has taken a number of steps in recent years to assist the organisation reach a sustainable financial position. Between 2016 and 2019, annual funding provided by Tusla to ParentStop increased from €31,000 to €68,625. In 2018, Tusla provided an additional €7,000 to ParentStop to address its recurring annual deficit. The agency provided a further exceptional annual increase of €24,000 to ParentStop in 2018 following withdrawal of funding by the northwest regional drug and alcohol task force. In 2019, the agency provided further once-off funding of €18,640 to assist the organisation to invest time and resources to develop a sustainable funding model.

Unfortunately, despite the support in recent years, ParentStop has decided that it cannot continue to operate within the funding allocations available from its core funders. Tusla and the HSE have been working together in recent weeks to develop a joint proposal for the continuation of the organisation in Donegal. This includes a commitment by all parties Tusla, HSE primary care and HSE health promotion and improvement that funding for ParentStop would be maintained at the existing level for 2020, together with a review of services with a view to developing a strategic plan for the organisation's future, and an exploration of potential additional funding streams.Tusla will continue this engagement with the HSE to see if the closure of ParentStop can be prevented. I will also be meeting Tusla and ParentStop later this month to discuss the matter.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the confirmation that the Minister is working with the HSE to find a funding solution and that she is going to meet the board of ParentStop later this month. I acknowledge that Tusla and the Department have tried their best to sustain the services but I feel other agencies and Departments have failed ParentStop.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is a very good framework. ParentStop is an example where, clearly, its responsibilities in working with over 400 families across Donegal, from one end of the county to the other, are cross-departmental and cover all spectrums, particularly in regard to education, health and the Minister's own area of responsibility, namely, children and youth affairs. The problem has been that other agencies and Departments have not stepped up, despite the forbearance of the Minister, the Department and Tusla, and they have not matched the funding. My concern is that the Minister's statement refers to maintaining the existing level of funding which, at €68,000, would not be enough for this organisation in 2020. I have corresponded with the HSE in Donegal and asked whether it can put some money on the table to make it sustainable in 2020. Does the Minister agree we need more money from the HSE on the table, with the funding from the Department, to give ParentStop a budget it can work with and then, hopefully, build the service?

It would be unimaginable to lose this service. We are talking about hundreds of families and about the social fabric of society. These families have given testimonies that they are in a very bad place and, through the help and support provided, these adults and, more importantly, these children are getting the environments they need, which is better for all of society. This is one we have to win. I appreciate the statement, which is positive and encouraging, but I would like to see more on the table from the HSE.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I thank the Senator. I know a little about the centre and I answered a question on this in the Dáil recently. As I said in my statement, I have been very impressed by its work and that has been represented, at least initially, by the stepping up to the plate, not only in terms of what Tusla has contributed over the last couple of years, but also the willingness to bring together the HSE and the different forums that are currently ongoing. That is certainly a demonstration of our desire to ensure ParentStop sustains itself. I understand how important this is, I really do, and the Senator speaks eloquently about what it has done for the community, the children and the families.

The second point is that what is going on now is the putting together of plans for a sustainable funding model. As the Senator would appreciate, every community and voluntary organisation is responsible to do that for itself. However, because of the work ParentStop has done and the particular issues it is faced with now, Tusla and the HSE are stepping in to try to support it, and they are very happy to do so.

I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy McHugh, in regard to the pilot project which the Deputy referenced. I do not know what the figures are and I would have to check before I commit, but I will certainly go to the HSE on this matter. However, we are aware of the challenge that is facing the organisation and the great contribution it has made. We are in planning mode. I look forward to meeting the representatives of ParentStop towards the end of the month. I hope that, ultimately, this will put them on the sustainable path that it sounds as if they deserve.